How spending time in Alpine Lakes Wilderness can awaken awe and lead to health benefits and a stronger community.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
-William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
He hears the song of nature; he has transcended his humanity, you know, and reassociated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life, from which our mind removes us.
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey
We’re in a stolen world, with no other human creatures in sight. The sun is setting on Dragontail Peak, the rays turning its broad face a pinkish-gold and all below it to shadow. In front of us, Colchuck Lake, a deep aquamarine during the day, has darkened to slate, though it still reflects the gilded mountain above. Behind us, the larch trees and backlit valley ridge enclose what will be our borrowed home for several days. A light wind is dancing with the trees, rippling waves, and kissing our faces.
Colchuck Lake shimmers beside the gateway to the famed Enchantments Basin in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The way to reach it is via the Stuart Lake trailhead, just a short drive from the Bavarian-style mountain town of Leavenworth. The hike demands a mere 4 miles and 2,300 feet of elevation gain to reach an alpine paradise, and what reward for such little labor.
We are among the few remaining here after an afternoon filled with day hikers. Some without camping permits turned back hours ago. Enchantment Area Permits (obtained through annual and day-of lotteries) are required to camp here overnight. Others have continued up Aasgard Pass beside the Dragontail to reach the Core Enchantment Zone before dark. But we have made our home here at Colchuck Lake, content to bask in the golden hour, when the light transforms every known thing into something magical. And, come nightfall, we’ll have other lucky stars to count.
The wilderness draws many into its fold, and its startling beauty is reason enough. But there’s something singular about the scene--the fleeting sunset, the remote peak with its living glow--that makes this moment seem more significant than the one before. A bit of its radiance remains in our soul, like lingering twilight.
When we immerse ourselves in nature, it can alter our perception of time and place, ushering in a heightened sense of the world. And the deepest shifts may issue from feelings of awe. Being “awestruck” can feel like a flash of wonder that expands the world before your eyes, shrinking you in its vastness. You can feel deeply humbled, but at the same time as if you’ve never felt so alive.
Awe is a profound emotion that’s hard to pin down, for within its elusive and ineffable nature lies its power, pointing to something greater than what we can fathom or name. Still, researchers endeavor to study it, and some have documented the capacity of awe to increase “prosocial tendencies,” or altruistic behaviors that benefit other people or society.
One research study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) synthesized five experimental evidence studies to document how inducing awe in test subjects, including placing them in an inspiring nature setting, resulted in increased tendencies toward generosity and ethicality, and a diminished emphasis on the self. In other words, awe helped them care a little more about others’ needs and less about their own.
The researchers concluded that awe “serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others” (897).
Awe realigns us with each other and our community. It inspires our service, and it serves us in return: there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that serving others can lead to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Probably because it helps us develop a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
For those of us already living our purpose (or following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell might say), seeking awe-inspiring experiences in nature may affirm our path and connection with the world. And for those of us still finding our way, nature can be our guide and teacher, as Wordsworth movingly avowed in his poetry.
There are so many reasons to seek nature: to reduce stress, improve mood, even minimize pain. The Japanese have a term, Shinrin-yoku—loosely translated as “forest bathing”—for spending time under the living canopy as a source of healing and preventive health care. But perhaps awe itself is the holy grail of nature experiences, an elusive feeling ever worth the pursuit, and so miraculous in its ability to inspire. When we find ourselves in nature, we also may find ourselves in wonder, marveling at a vastness beyond the world we know, discovering how good it is to feel so small before its grand immensity.
Want a little more awe in your life? More time in the “meadows, hills and groves," spellbound by sunsets or bathing in forests? You might find what you are looking for in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Leavenworth. Here are a few links to learn more:
Visit Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Hike the Enchantments
Discover Leavenworth, WA
Stay at Snowgrass Lodge